“Having said this, I must deal immediately and at some length with the question of violence.”
“Sometimes ‘violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation.’”
—Hannah Arendt citing Conor Cruise O’Brien, On Violence
Nelson Mandela gave one of the great speeches of 20th century at his trial before the South African Supreme Court in Pretoria in 1964. Mandela’s speech is best remembered for the ringing conclusion in which he articulates the ideals of free and democratic life as that “ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Six months after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream speech” from the Mall in Washington, DC, Mandela ended his own speech before being sentenced to life imprisonment with these words:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Mandela died yesterday and he will be rightly remembered for both his vision and his courage.
I want to focus on another aspect of his legacy, however, the question of violence. Often forgotten by those who quote only the final paragraph of Mandela’s speech, much of his speech is an exploration of the need for and proper revolutionary use of violence. Indeed, after a brief introduction in which Mandela reminds the Court that he holds a bachelor’s degree, that he is a lawyer, and that he was raised to revere his tribal forebears who fought in defense of their fatherland, he comes to the question of violence. “Having said this,” he says, “I must deal immediately and at some length with the question of violence.”
What follows is one of the most thoughtful and subtle reflections on the strategic and moral complications of violence we have. It is worth citing at length, and even this summary barely does Mandela justice. But here is Mandela’s argument for a limited campaign of violence in response to the violence of the South African state:
I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the whites.
I admit immediately that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto we Sizwe, and that I played a prominent role in its affairs until I was arrested in August 1962….
In order to explain these matters properly, I will have to explain what Umkhonto set out to achieve; what methods it prescribed for the achievement of these objects, and why these methods were chosen. I will also have to explain how I became involved in the activities of these organisations.
I deny that Umkhonto was responsible for a number of acts which clearly fell outside the policy of the organisation, and which have been charged in the indictment against us. I do not know what justification there was for these acts, but to demonstrate that they could not have been authorised by Umkhonto, I want to refer briefly to the roots and policy of the organisation.
I have already mentioned that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto. I, and the others who started the organisation, did so for two reasons. Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalise and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.
But the violence which we chose to adopt was not terrorism…..
I must return to June 1961. What were we, the leaders of our people, to do? Were we to give in to the show of force and the implied threat against future action, or were we to fight it and, if so, how?
We had no doubt that we had to continue the fight. Anything else would have been abject surrender. Our problem was not whether to fight, but was how to continue the fight. We of the ANC had always stood for a non-racial democracy, and we shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart than they already were. But the hard facts were that fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights. It may not be easy for this court to understand, but it is a fact that for a long time the people had been talking of violence - of the day when they would fight the white man and win back their country - and we, the leaders of the ANC, had nevertheless always prevailed upon them to avoid violence and to pursue peaceful methods. When some of us discussed this in May and June of 1961, it could not be denied that our policy to achieve a non-racial state by non-violence had achieved nothing, and that our followers were beginning to lose confidence in this policy and were developing disturbing ideas of terrorism.
It must not be forgotten that by this time violence had, in fact, become a feature of the South African political scene. There had been violence in 1957 when the women of Zeerust were ordered to carry passes; there was violence in 1958 with the enforcement of cattle culling in Sekhukhuniland; there was violence in 1959 when the people of Cato Manor protested against pass raids; there was violence in 1960 when the government attempted to impose Bantu authorities in Pondoland. Thirty-nine Africans died in these disturbances. In 1961 there had been riots in Warmbaths, and all this time the Transkei had been a seething mass of unrest. Each disturbance pointed clearly to the inevitable growth among Africans of the belief that violence was the only way out - it showed that a government which uses force to maintain its rule teaches the oppressed to use force to oppose it. Already small groups had arisen in the urban areas and were spontaneously making plans for violent forms of political struggle. There now arose a danger that these groups would adopt terrorism against Africans, as well as whites, if not properly directed. Particularly disturbing was the type of violence engendered in places such as Zeerust, Sekhukhuniland, and Pondoland amongst Africans. It was increasingly taking the form, not of struggle against the government - though this is what prompted it - but of civil strife amongst themselves, conducted in such a way that it could not hope to achieve anything other than a loss of life and bitterness.
At the beginning of June 1961, after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.
This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle, and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe. We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the government had left us with no other choice. In the Manifesto of Umkhonto published on 16 December 1961, which is exhibit AD, we said:
"The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices - submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom."
This was our feeling in June of 1961 when we decided to press for a change in the policy of the National Liberation Movement. I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did….
Four forms of violence were possible. There is sabotage, there is, there is terrorism, and there is open revolution. We chose to adopt the first method and to exhaust it before taking any other decision.
In the light of our political background the choice was a logical one. Sabotage did not involve loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations. Bitterness would be kept to a minimum and, if the policy bore fruit, democratic government could become a reality. This is what we felt at the time, and this is what we said in our manifesto (exhibit AD):
"We of Umkhonto we Sizwe have always sought to achieve liberation without bloodshed and civil clash. We hope, even at this late hour, that our first actions will awaken everyone to a realisation of the disastrous situation to which the nationalist policy is leading. We hope that we will bring the government and its supporters to their senses before it is too late, so that both the government and its policies can be changed before matters reach the desperate state of civil war."
The initial plan was based on a careful analysis of the political and economic situation of our country. We believed that South Africa depended to a large extent on foreign capital and foreign trade. We felt that planned destruction of power plants, and interference with rail and telephone communications, would tend to scare away capital from the country, make it more difficult for goods from the industrial areas to reach the seaports on schedule, and would in the long run be a heavy drain on the economic life of the country, thus compelling the voters of the country to reconsider their position.
Attacks on the economic life-lines of the country were to be linked with sabotage on government buildings and other symbols of apartheid. These attacks would serve as a source of inspiration to our people. In addition, they would provide an outlet for those people who were urging the adoption of violent methods and would enable us to give concrete proof to our followers that we had adopted a stronger line and were fighting back against government violence.
In addition, if mass action were successfully organised, and mass reprisals taken, we felt that sympathy for our cause would be roused in other countries, and that greater pressure would be brought to bear on the South African government.
This then was the plan. Umkhonto was to perform sabotage, and strict instructions were given to its members right from the start, that on no account were they to injure or kill people in planning or carrying out operations.
It is strange today to hear politicians of all stripes praising Mandela for his statesmanship when they, for years, condemned his embrace of violence and arrested those in the U.S. who—following Mandela’s own tactics—chained themselves to fences to oppose the U.S. government’s support of the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is true that Mandela lived numerous lives. As a young man, he was part of a royal tribal household. As a young adult, he was a lawyer. Later he was a non-violent leader. Still later, he turned to limited and rationalized use of violence. For 27 years he paid for his crimes in prison and then emerged a statesman, one committed to reconciliation, freedom, and multicultural democracy. Finally, when he stepped down from the Presidency after one term he helped assure South Africa’s democratic future and became an elder statesman in the truest sense of the word.
To understand the complexities of Mandela’s limited turn to sabotage (as opposed to terrorism in his words), it is helpful to consider Hannah Arendt’s essay On Violence, originally published in the New York Review of Books in 1969. Violence, writes Arendt, is at root instrumental. It is a means to an end. And sometimes, violence can yield positive and even moderate results, Arendt claims, citing Conor Cruise O’Brien: “Sometimes ‘violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation.’”
As did Mandela, Arendt well understood that violence can be a useful and important means in struggles for justice. She points to numerous of examples where violence has worked to promote justice: “France would not have received the most radical bill since Napoleon to change its antiquated education system if the French students had not rioted; if it had not been for the riots of the spring term, no one at Columbia University would have dreamed of accepting reforms; and it is probably quite true that in West Germany the existence of ‘dissenting minorities is not even noticed unless they engage in provocation.’” Violence can, and often does, make injustice visible to a citizenry that is blind to it. Because violence can “serve to dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention,” violence can serve the cause of reform and also of justice.
We must take Arendt and Mandela’s point seriously. Violence is a means to an end. Violence can work. “No doubt, ‘violence pays.’” Violence can yield results.
But Arendt is not an advocate for violence. Violence can pay, she writes, but “the trouble is that it pays indiscriminately.” And this is where the use of violence becomes dangerous.
The danger in using violence as a means is that when “applied to human affairs,” violence as a means has a tendency to overwhelm whatever good ends towards which it aims. Too often, violence will lead those in power to respond with sham reforms designed to end violence. They will seek the path of least resistance, instituting reforms that are often the wrong reforms. Arendt offers the example of the way that the student university protests of the 60s led to new courses in Swahili and “admitting students without the necessary qualifications” instead of real reform of the entire educational system.
What is more, violence—precisely because it is effective—has a tendency to promote more violence in response. If violence in the name of justice doesn’t achieve its ends quickly, the likely result is not justice, but more violence: “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”
To read Mandela’s speech from 1964 is to encounter someone who thought through the promise and danger of violence in precisely the rational way that Arendt call for. The question we should ask is whether the turn to violence by the ANC in South Africa—even the limited, rational, and property-oriented violence Mandela embraced—promoted or retarded the cause for reform? Was it the ANC’s violence that led, 30 years later, to the reform of South Africa? Or was it Mandela’s dignity in prison and his emergence as a force for peace and reconciliation? Let’s celebrate Mandela as a hero this week. But let’s also ask: Was he right about violence?